A metal techno-crucifix adorns the cover of Wired magazine's December issue. The cover copy proclaims: "Science Gets Religion."
Among articles on the power of prayer, the Pope's astrophysicist, and the convergence of faith and the lab, the issue includes "God is the Machine," a speculative essay connecting the idea of God with controversial theories about the universe as a giant computer. Wired's founding editor, Kevin Kelly, wonders whether God is "the Ultimate Software and Source Code," "the Ultimate Programmer," or "the off-universe platform where this universe is computed."
Now an editor at large for Wired, Kelley is the author of Out of Control, New Rules for the New Economy, and Asia Grace, a collection of photos from Asia in the 1970s.
In 1979, at the age of 27, Kelly traveled to Jerusalem, to photograph Easter ceremonies. Unexpectedly locked out of his hostel—and without money for another place to stay—he wandered Jerusalem's Old City and finally found the doors to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher open. Inside, he fell asleep on a stone slab.
The next morning he followed the crowds to the Garden Tomb, where he experienced a profound conviction that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. Kelly returned to his hostel to rest, and there had a strong sense that he would die within six months—and that he should live accordingly.
Rather than seek adventure, Kelly returned to his parents' home to strengthen those bonds, gave anonymous gifts of money, and took a 5,000-mile bike trip to re-establish ties with relatives. Kelly first told this story in 1999 on public radio's This American Life (audio file).
Christianity Today assistant online editor Todd Hertz talked to Kelly about using the terms of science to talk about God, his mission as a believer, and how science fiction writers function as theologians.
Have you seen an increase in the intersection of science and religion?
I think there has been a minimal formal interaction between those spheres, but I detect an increase in frustration that there is not more.
I think my meager attempts to bridge those [through writing] are done slightly against the grain in the sense that there are not a lot of other attempts to do it. It is difficult to do because technology is seen as almost the antithesis of spirituality. Science is cast as the rational vs. the irrational of belief. It is a huge gap to overcome.
With such a gap, how have you balanced faith with science in your own life?
My interest in science came first. I was science nerd in high school. The way I have reconciled it is that I see my mission as to talk about it, to explore the two, and to talk about faith using the vocabulary and logic of science.
I don't feel a division in terms of emotion. I recognize it is a division in the logic. My attempt is to articulate why science and religion are really talking about the same thing or how they can talk about the same thing.
What does your Wired article "God is the Machine" say about the identity of God?
There was part of that piece cut out in which I was stressing that every age reinterprets God with their own metaphor. God doesn't change, but our metaphors do. The current reigning metaphor that is very unacknowledged in our culture right now is the computational metaphor. It permeates everything and we don't even know it.
What I was suggesting was that one could use this completely universal and accepted metaphor to describe God. It isn't necessarily truer than other metaphors, but it is only truer to the age. It may be no more valid than past metaphors, but it makes a lot more sense to people 30 years and under. It is an attempt to use a current language and syntax and perspective and metaphor to describe an eternal thing.
In your 1999 paper "Nerd Theology" you use another computer concept, information, as a metaphor for God. How does that apply?
The public at large's acceptance of the notion of information actually gives us ways to understand God. First of all, what is information? The kinds of ways you would describe it are the ways we would describe God: there's no material, it's a force, it has a power.
We can use concepts of information to describe God. It is not fair to say they are equal because obviously a bit on a CD is not God. When I talk about the universality of computation as something that is shared and fundamental I am not suggesting that God is computation other than to say that computation is one way we can think about God.
From where have you learned the most about God?
I came to my belief fairly late in life, so my influences actually came from spending huge amounts of time in other religions in Asia. As a photographer there, I spent inordinate amounts of time hanging out at temples, mosques, monasteries, etc. That has a lot of influence.
Science fiction also played a critical role, because it seemed to me that science-fiction authors are actually the theologians of our age. They grapple with the "what ifs." They look at how technology changes our lives and changes our minds.
Theologians employed in academia seem to be far more remote and not engaged with actual changes occurring. I would guess that Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry have much more of an effect. People actually listen and pay attention to their theological musings, which is a lot of what science fiction is. What do we do when we meet other intelligence? What does it mean to be a human? These questions are much better addressed by science fiction.
I would say that the influence of other religions in practice and science fiction was as influential for me as Bible studies and sermons. In that sense, I am probably not alone.
How did these influences lead up to what happened in Jerusalem on Easter morning, 1979?
That's a story I don't think I could tell any better than the one I told on NPR. I simply couldn't tell it any better. But what happened is something I don't really have a good explanation for. I would call it a surrender or an acceptance.
I think you can make two models of the universe: you can make an entirely logical argument that there is no God, [or you could make an] equally logical argument of a genesis and a creation of the world. In the end, it comes down to a decision that one makes. You go down one road and within that road, everything makes complete sense.
I think that is sort of what I did. It took going to Jerusalem on Easter morning out to the empty tombs to really trigger an acceptance of this alternative view. Once I accepted it, there is a logic, comfort, leverage that I have because of that view.
Why did it take this experience to convince you?
I don't have a good explanation. I was older, and I was a reluctant convert. I am sort of an intellectual type. I don't know why Jerusalem, but that's what it took.
I have no idea why I fell in love with my wife. Why her? She is probably the least likely. I could have spent years and years trying to imagine who I would marry and never come up with her. So why?
It is really strange why these things happen. I am not sure it is important if there is a logical explanation. I think I am a person who likes to see things in action and to have first-hand experience. I am more interested in basing things on my experiences rather than just what someone told me.
You are currently writing a new book, what is it about?
A major theme is that technology is not some lesser evil that we just have to put up with, nor is it a neutral tool that can be used for good or bad. Instead, I suggest that technology is actually a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.
Technology expands life's possibilities. It also brings other views of God. I think that the human intellect alone simply can't come close to apprehending God. It will require all the intellects in the universe, including any artificial intellects we make, if we are to approach even the slightest glimmer of who God is.
The reason why we want more technology is that every individual human has a certain God-given set of talents that require things like technology in order to be expressed.
Imagine Beethoven being born 2,000 years ago when there was no orchestra or piano. What a loss that would have been. He of course would have made the best music he could have with whatever he found, but we would not have the glorious work that he did. Same with George Lucas and film.
There are people born today that will never really be able to develop their full set of talents God has given them because technology does not exist yet. We have a moral obligation to increase the amount of technology in the world.
What can computer nerds or sci-fi writers teach theologians about God?
One of the great things about C. S. Lewis was that he was both. That is one of his strengths and why people are attracted to his work. He was basically a science-fiction theologian.
Someone once said that Earth is either the only intelligent life in the universe or it is just one of millions. Either statement is an astounding, amazing fact. Let's say the second is correct and there are a lot of other civilizations all around the universe. The question is, do they have a Jesus?
That's a question most theologians are not addressing. But it is certainly the kind of question science-fiction writers will address. I think by addressing it, they quickly come to grappling some pretty interesting and powerful things. I think science fiction can get you to that point a lot sooner than traditional theology studies.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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